The Amelia Scott collection
July's Object of the Month has been chosen by Aoife Kurta, Graduate Documentation Assistant at the Museum, and is a collection of papers, letters and documents belonging to Amelia Scott, one of Tunbridge Wells’ most active social reformers and suffragists.
Amelia Scott was born in 1860, and her family moved to Tunbridge Wells the following year. She was comfortably well off, her father an accountant and her family employing three servants. She remained in Tunbridge Wells all her life with her sister Louise. She was a practising Anglican, and the grand-daughter of a clergyman. Throughout her life Amelia Scott held roles in a large number of organisations dedicated to social and moral welfare and women’s rights and suffrage. She founded the Tunbridge Wells branch of the National Union of Women Workers (NUWW, later the National Council of Women) in 1895. In 1913, she took part in a six week long nationwide march of suffrage pilgrims, giving speeches and handing out leaflets along the journey. During the First World War, she worked to organise the women’s war effort and to accommodate Belgian refugees, receiving the Gold Palm Order of the Crown from the King of the Belgians for her work. In November 1919, Amelia Scott, alongside fellow suffragist and social reformer Susan Power, became one of the first two women elected to the Tunbridge Wells Town Council. Scott also served on the committee of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child, wrote passionately to raise public awareness of conditions in the workhouse, and served for forty years as a Guardian of the Poor.
While at Tunbridge Wells Museum, I have been lucky enough to work closely with a collection of her papers, cataloguing, repackaging and scanning a range of her documents including drafts of her stories, copies of her speeches and talks, photographs of her and her sisters, receipts from her charitable donations, legal documents and medical prescriptions. These artefacts portray Amelia Scott’s extensive and prolonged social activism in Tunbridge Wells and provide an insight into her personal life as well as links to a national community of women and men fighting for broad social reforms in the early twentieth century.
Some of the documents that stood out to me were those that demonstrate the breadth of social causes Scott and her contemporaries – who are largely remembered solely under the term ‘suffragist’ and associated with the campaign for the vote - fought for. These include a leaflet written by Miss Scott for the National Union of Women Workers detailing the Mental Deficiency Act 1913. The Act created a Board of Control to supervise local authorities in running ‘mental deficiency’ services – and it specified that at least one member of the Board and of each local authority committee was to be a woman. At a time when any woman who was unhappy, depressed, expressed unpopular opinions, drank, had a child out of wedlock, or in any way broke the mould of the stereotypical passive housewife was at risk of being labelled mad, legislation ensuring that this panel had a female presence was a vital step towards equality.
Another leaflet details a scheme started by “some ladies in Tunbridge Wells” to build a room adjoining the Workhouse Mortuary, to which friends could be taken when they came to visit their dead – highlighting the previous lack of consideration for the feelings of those who visit and lack of care for those who died in the workhouse. Scott details the conditions in The Passing of a Great Dread, memoirs of her long career in social work. She describes the mortuary as “a shed in which one would have hesitated to put a bicycle”, disordered, dirty, with an earth floor and the dead “in rows on shelves reaching to the roof like a ghastly bookcase”.
A request for funds for “A club for working girls”, whose committee Amelia Scott served as secretary, shows social and moral concerns for young working women and an attempt to provide them with leisure, recreation, and self-help. It would be interesting to know how classes for musical drill, singing, needlework and millinery, basket work, cottage gardening, and collecting wildflowers were received by the working girls of Tunbridge Wells.
Together these three leaflets show the varied concerns of Amelia Scott and her fellow activists in Tunbridge Wells and across the country. They reveal the breadth of social change in the early twentieth century and illuminate one of the figures pushing tirelessly to improve conditions for the poorest, to raise women’s issues, and to promote healthcare and education.
Aoife says: 'This collection has been so exciting and inspiring to work with. Drafts of Scott’s writings, especially her memoirs, are an insight into her personal activism while documents like Scott’s copy of the order of service from Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s funeral are an emotive link to a broad network of female activists who demanded social reform.'
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